Jury faults cop, not city, for fatal shooting

Posted: December 12, 2012

A federal jury on Tuesday awarded $4.7 million to the parents of a Port Richmond man murdered in 2009 by an off-duty Philadelphia officer, but rejected their claim that the city and its Police Department contributed to the death by ignoring years of reckless conduct by the officer.

After a weeklong trial and six hours of deliberations, the jurors agreed that Police Department supervisors showed "deliberate indifference" to past misconduct by Officer Frank Tepper and that he was acting as an officer on the night he killed William "Billy" Panas Jr.

But that indifference didn't cause Panas' death, the jurors ruled.

They awarded Karen and Bill Panas Sr. $1.2 million in compensatory damages for their son's lost income and $3.5 million in punitive damages. But the judgment - solely against Tepper, who is serving life in prison for the murder - felt hollow.

As the jury of three men and five women filed from U.S. District Judge Legrome D. Davis' nearly empty courtroom, Karen Panas tried to make sense of the decision.

"Did we lose?" she asked her lawyer, James J. Binns.

"Yes, we lost against the city," Binns replied.

Elizabeth Mattioni, who heads the litigation group for the City Solicitor's Office, called the verdict "a victory" for the city.

That Tepper violated Panas' rights when he fired a bullet into his chest on Nov. 21, 2009, wasn't in dispute.

Tepper made no attempt to contest the lawsuit and chose not to attend the trial.

Panas was in a group of young men congregating outside Tepper's house that night when the off-duty officer came outside, waving a gun and ordering them to disperse. When Panas scoffed that Tepper wouldn't shoot anyone, the officer aimed at the young man's chest and fired.

City lawyers portrayed Tepper as "a drunken idiot" and the killing as a senseless tragedy, but not one that could have been predicted or prevented.

Deputy City Solicitor Mark Maguire told jurors that Tepper had just seven citizen complaints over 16 years on the force, and none in the seven years before the Panas shooting.

"Nothing about that says he's a problem officer," Maguire said in his closing arguments. "Nothing about that says he's likely to commit murder."

Binns contended that the city and department bosses shared blame in the death because they ignored or downplayed red flags and complaints about Tepper's conduct between 1995 and 2002.

He cited incidents in which Tepper, often fueled by alcohol, brandished his badge or gun and harassed or assaulted young men in and around his neighborhood years before he shot Panas.

"The city knew that he was a drunken idiot for the entirety of his career," Binns said in his closing arguments.

After the verdict, Binns said he would seek to enforce the judgment, perhaps by garnishing Tepper's police pension.

One of Panas' uncle called the verdict an affront.

"It is a slap in the face from the jury to award money to the family knowing the family will never see a penny here," the uncle, Michael Ditro, said in an e-mail.

Karen Panas was more restrained. Standing outside the courthouse after the verdict, she said she believed jurors were swayed by "that gap" - the seven-year span when Tepper's record was clean before the shooting.

Still, she said, she did not regret bringing the case, and trying to hold the city accountable.

"Hopefully, we can try to go on," she said. "It's been three years."


Contact John P. Martin at 215-925-2649, jmartin@phillynews.com, or @JPMartinInky on Twitter.

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